Saturday, 4 July 2009

The Barbary terror

From the introduction to Frederick C. Leiner, The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War Against the Pirates of North Africa (Oxford University Press, 2006):

Almost everywhere in the eighteenth century, men were in chains…

In Russia, millions of serfs lived a brutish existence tied to the land and at the sufferance of their manorial lords until Tsar Alexander II freed them in 1861. In the Levant and Istanbul, the burgeoning population needed bread, leading the Tartar rulers of the Crimea to raid the Ukraine, Russia, and Caucuses for hundreds of thousands of white Christians to work as slaves growing wheat in the steppe.

[…] slavery had existed in Islamic North Africa, the so-called Barbary states, for centuries, and was a constant threat to Europe. From dozens of ports in Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, Islamic corsairs darted out in their row galleys, and later, in their sailing xebecs and feluccas, to seize European ships with their Christian crews and passengers (and cargoes). They boldly landed bands of armed pirates on the coasts of southern Europe and carted off peasant farmers and nobles, fishermen and goat herders, clerics and tradesmen, to slavery in Barbary. The corsairs sometimes seized the entire population of a village; coastal areas of Andalusia, Sicily, Calabria, Tuscany, and the Greek islands were depopulated by “manstealing” over the course of several hundred years.

Barbary slavery differed from slavery elsewhere both in the spirit in which the corsairs operated and the way Barbary societies used slaves. As historian Robert C. Davis notes in Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, “in their traffic in Christians there was also always an element of revenge, almost of jihad—for the wrongs of 1492 [when Ferdinand and Isabella finally expelled the Moors from Spain], for the centuries of crusading violence that had preceded them, and for the ongoing religious struggle between Christian and Muslim. . . .” But the Barbary slave trade was driven as much by economics as by religious ideology. The corsairs needed oarsmen for their row galleys, and the captives were even more valuable when traded for ransom. Factoring in losses from the plague, malnourishment, mistreatment, and periodic ransomings, Professor Davis estimates that in the 250 years of peak slave-taking by the Barbary corsairs, from 1530 to 1780, at least one million, and perhaps as many as one and one-quarter million, white Christians were enslaved in Islamic North Africa. Even in the eighteenth century, as the number of slaves the Barbary pirates needed dwindled because sailing ships had replaced galleys, approximately 175,000 white Christians were carried off into slavery.

[…] The governments of Europe either paid tribute to them to prevent their subjects from being enslaved, or were too poor to do so. For the United States, free trade was both a policy and a belief: trade would increase wealth even as it increased freedom. But with no navy and little money, the new republic’s merchant ships and crewmen were prime targets for capture and enslavement. The promises of free trade were imperiled.

John Foss, a seaman in the brig Polly out of Newburyport, Massachusetts, which sailed from Baltimore bound to Cadiz, Spain, in September 1793, was one of those who became enslaved. Like many who experienced slavery in Algiers, Foss wrote a detailed account of his experience.

After being captured at sea, Foss and his fellow Americans were

taken to the palace of the ruler, the dey of Algiers, through a surging crowd which stunned them “with the shouts, clapping of hands and other exclamations of joy from the inhabitants; thanking God for their great success and victories over so many Christian dogs, and unbelievers. . . .” The dey greeted them with a speech declaring he would never make peace with their country, finishing, “now I have got you, you Christian dogs, you shall eat stones.” The next morning, a heavy chain link was hammered around each man’s ankle, and Foss called the “dreadful clanking” sound of the iron chain each man had to carry “the most terrible noise I ever heard.” The captured men then began their work as slaves, mining rocks in the nearby mountains and hauling them by bodily force down to the port to repair or extend the seawall at the harbor, or working at the port carrying freight on their backs, goaded along by guards with pointed sticks, like cattle prods, with dreadful beatings or death never a distant possibility.

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